Playing dinner lady – my morning at the Whitechapel Mission

Last week I volunteered at the Whitechapel Mission, my company took part in the Breakfast Challenge where as a group we prepared, cooked and served breakfast to a small pocket of the homeless and marginalised in London. What initially seemed like an excellent opportunity to get out of the office for half a day soon turned in to a meaningful and fun way of helping people. And it was no easy task – the 6am start time should have set alarm bells ringing.

No sooner had I walked through the door than the gregarious supervisors had set me to buttering endless rounds of toast. Up next was serving and costing the breakfasts, this was no mean feat – taking custom orders and costing each individual item with mental arithmetic unused since school was quite exhausting. There were a few fried egg casualties in my haste to serve everybody!

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Playing tea lady was far more enjoyable, a slower paced affair where we had opportunity to talk with some of the (mostly) men at the counter whilst doling out specific orders – tea, half a sugar, milk in first, leave the bag in please! Without going in to detail the diversity of the group was remarkable, ranging from very polite ex servicemen, to educated men fallen on hard times, to one cheeky guy who gave all the ladies his phone number at the end of the session. I chatted in French to a man from Martinique who lived in Paris for 20 years and then came here, working around the country before ending up in London. He dreamed of returning to his homeland to retire. Their homelessness didn’t define them as human beings.

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Where the Whitechapel Mission truly succeeds is making the people that come through their doors feel valued, that they are members of our society and deserving of our attention. Engaging people is far more effective than treating them like the “other”. Serving breakfast is just one of the strings to the Whitechapel Mission’s bow. We were shown to the basement where there was essentially a clothes shop – all items sorted by volunteers, clean and tear free, neatly arranged by size on hangers with tags on. They also offer showers, toiletries, life skills classes, women only lunches, hair dressing, assistance with form filling, and act as a postal address for many; all the things most people take for granted in their comfortable existence. Myself included.

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Traipsing back to the office a bit sweaty and saturated with grease really didn’t seem so bad when I thought about the facts – I have a job, a home, family and a safety net, that night I ate dinner, had a bath and slept in a warm bed. Many are not so fortunate. I am as culpable as the next person of looking through homeless people to make my commute as smooth and guilt free as possible. Hopefully though this post has made you consider the stories of the invisible populace on the streets, and perhaps given you an idea of a fulfilling activity if you have a free morning!

If you would like to donate to or learn more about volunteering for the Whitechapel Mission please see this website: https://whitechapel.org.uk/

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